Thinking Anew – And the angels sing softly to the newborn babe

The Church of the Visitation  in Jerusalem honours the visit paid by   Mary, the mother of Jesus, to Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist.  This is the site where tradition tells us that Mary recited her song of praise, the Magnificat, one of the most ancient Marian hymns.  Getty Images

The Church of the Visitation in Jerusalem honours the visit paid by Mary, the mother of Jesus, to Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist. This is the site where tradition tells us that Mary recited her song of praise, the Magnificat, one of the most ancient Marian hymns. Getty Images

 

The Christian calender differs from our regular calendar, and I find it helpful to think of the liturgical year in terms of framing, like a painting or a window. Each season the Church places a particular frame around an event of grace, which draws our eyes and focuses our hearts. The frame remains steady, regardless of what may or may not be going on around us.

As we enter the last Sunday in Advent, our gospel reading reveals one of the most subversive scenes in the Bible. A newly pregnant Mary travels through the hill country to visit her heavily pregnant cousin Elizabeth. Both pregnancies have an element of crisis to them – Elizabeth’s because her life has up until now been scarred by infertility and she has been considered too elderly to bear a child; Mary’s because she was not in the running to have a child, not having yet “known a man”.

The frame draws our focus to the joyous moment in which Mary enters the house of Elizabeth. The two women embrace, and the unborn John the Baptiser in Elizabeth’s womb jumps for joy at the unborn Saviour in Mary’s womb. It is moving that the very first person to recognise Christ as God’s anointed one was an unborn baby.

Astonishing that out of the patriarchal culture of the ancient world we even know the names of these two women – millennia after they lived – and that the prophetic songs they proclaimed are prayed in homes and churches and chapels all over the earth! In keeping with the main players in the Bible, these women were not of noble birth, neither rich nor married to riches, not powerful or political, not gods, or possessing of any magical or mythical powers. Throughout both Testaments, God makes ordinary people extraordinary by the purposes into which he invites them.

This scene radiates the essence of what it means to be chosen by God and to be obedient to God. These women are templates for every Christian disciple. They take themselves seriously – in God – because of what they are carrying – in God. Elizabeth carries the Messenger: John the Baptiser. Mary – “the God-bearer” as she is known to the Orthodox – carries the Message Himself.

Both women were to have their hearts broken by the future sufferings of their babies – John was to be beheaded, Jesus was to be crucified. Yet body and soul Elizabeth and Mary both said a resounding “Yes” to the roles they were being asked to play in God’s saving plan, without reservation, placing all future challenges into the hands of God where they belong.

The Magnificat, or Mary’s Song, echoes down the millennia, with its ecstatic proclamations (already in the past tense) about scattering the proud, putting down the mighty from their seats, exalting the humble and meek, filling the hungry with good things and sending the rich empty away. These Kingdom-of-God words are so radical and subversive that they have been censored many times by those in power.

The British banned it from Evensong in Calcutta in the early 19th century as it was feared that it would incite rebellion. For the same reason it was banned from public recitation in Guatemala in the 1980s. It was banned in Argentina during the so-cold dirty war of the late 1970s and early 1980s. Mothers whose children had disappeared during this war put the words of the Magnificat on posters throughout the capital, and the military junta forbade any public display of Mary’s song because it was considered too much of a call to protest injustice.

Perhaps this Christmas-time, instead of viewing the world through our regular lenses, nestled in our comfortable bubbles, we can seek a richer focus by gazing at this vulnerable baby as framed for us by the ancient stream of our faith. Emmanuel, God with us.

Contemporary American composer Eric Whiteacre frames this scene tenderly with his luminous choral introit “Lux aurumque”. “Light, warm and heavy as pure gold, and the angels sing softly to the newborn babe.”

A joyful Christmas to all of you, when He comes!

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